Indigenous Australian Imprisonment Rates Are The Highest In The World: A Justice Reinvestment Approach is Needed

Indigenous Australians are the most imprisoned people in the world as the country enters “a second convict age”, a federal parliamentarian has revealed in a paper published on August 26. Labor Frontbencher and economist Dr. Andrew Leigh’s analysis of Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that the rate of indigenous adults in prison has more than doubled since 1990 to 2,481 per 100,000 adults in 2018. “Indigenous Australians are more likely to be in jail than African-Americans,” the paper says. According to the data, almost a quarter of Indigenous men born in the 1970s have spent time in prison, while in Western Australia nine in 10 born in the same time have been arrested.  This comes amongst overall climbing prison rates across all states and territories in Australia since about 1985. The incarceration rate is now 0.22%, a 130% increase since 1985, and the highest it’s been since 1899, according to the data.

Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights Advisor told SBS News that high incarceration rates can have major impacts on the family and wider community. “Once you break that family link … it changes your whole life,” he said. “It is hard enough for Aboriginal people to get a job as it is, let alone an Aboriginal with a record to get a job and it just changes the life standard of that family.”

Dr Leigh’s paper follows the Australian Law Reform Commission’s comprehensive report “Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People” delivered to the federal attorney-general in December 2017. The report detailed the “stark over-representation” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australian prisons and made extensive recommendations to lower the incarceration rates indicating Aboriginal-led solutions as essential. Despite the Federal Government having commissioned the report, it has since failed to respond.

The time is now long overdue that the Federal Government adopts the recommendations made by the inquiry. A justice reinvestment approach is needed, in which funds from the corrections budget are diverted into intervention, prevention, and diversionary solutions in communities with a high number of offenders. This would involve working with communities to design local solutions to address the underlying causes of crime. In line with the recommendations, an independent justice reinvestment body should be set up with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in order to “promote the reinvestment of resources” and “provide technical expertise”. Additionally Australian governments at all levels “should support justice reinvestment trials initiated in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”.

Justice reinvestment has been proven in some USA States, in the UK, and in a community based trail in Bourke, New South Wales, Australia, to be cheaper than imprisonment and have a bigger impact on creating safe and stronger communities. According to an impact assessment report released by the non-profit Just Reinvest NSW, the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project in Bourke has led to significant reductions in crime and reoffending. Between 2015 and 2017 rates reduced in police-recorded incidents of domestic violence, bail breaches, days spent in custody for adults, and juvenile charges in the top five offence categories. By 2017 it had saved almost $2.5m through the program by reducing police hours, costs of imprisonment, welfare crisis payments, days absent from work and school, and court costs for police and defendants, according to Justice Reinvest NSW.

The over-imprisonment of Indigenous Australians is creating major social, health, and economic costs. A Justice reinvestment approach will reduce incarceration rates, save money, and create healthier communities

Marco Stojanovik
Follow me